ERIC Identifier: ED358199
Publication Date: 1993-05-00
Author: Ascher, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
The Changing Face of Racial Isolation and Desegregation in
Urban Schools. ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 91.
During the past decade much has changed in the nation's demographics and
housing patterns, as well as in its commitment to school desegregation. Although
educators in many cities still work hard to ensure that their schools are as
desegregated as possible, others have abandoned the goal of desegregation,
arguing that the cities have become too racially segregated to make school
integration feasible, or that enforced desegregation has only exacerbated white
This digest focuses on several current issues in school desegregation that
stem from recent changes in demography and policy, and research. Although the
digest cannot answer the complicated legal, political, and educational questions
about desegregation in the 1990s, it can help to inform the debate.
CHANGES IN STUDENT DIVERSITY
Since 1980, eight million
immigrants have arrived in the U.S., bringing two million students into the
nation's schools. These newcomers have changed American schools from biracial to
multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual institutions. While the percentage
of non-Hispanic whites has dropped significantly, both the percentage and ethnic
diversity of nonwhite students have increased. Non-Hispanic white students
constituted 76 percent of all public school students as late as 1976, but by
1986 they comprised just over 70 percent. At the same time, the percentage of
black students remained about the same, Hispanic students increased from 6.4
percent to almost 10 percent, and Asians increased from 1.2 to 2.8 percent of
all students. Despite the continuing small numbers of Hispanics and Asians
relative to whites, the increase was almost 45 percent for Hispanics and 116
percent for Asians in just ten years (Ogle, Alsalam, & Rogers, 1991).
Inside the major cities, the racial and ethnic composition of school children
changed even more significantly during this period. Already predominantly
minority at the beginning of the decade, between 1980 and 1990 the proportion of
central city public school students who were African American, Hispanic, Asian
American or Native American increased from 66.6 percent to 75 percent. Today,
over a third of all racial/ethnic minority children are in public school in the
nation's major cities. Only nine out of the 47 urban districts in the Great City
Schools network have a majority white enrollment (Casserly, 1992).
CHANGES IN NATIONAL DESEGREGATION POLICIES
Since the mid
1980s, several Federal decisions and policies have effectively taken the teeth
out of school desegregation compliance. Most conspicuously, the Civil Rights
Division of the Department of Justice began efforts to end busing in Norfolk,
Savannah, Oklahoma City, Seattle, and elsewhere (National Research Council,
1989). In addition, in January 1991, in a pivotal desegregation case, OKLAHOMA
CITY v. DOYLE, the Supreme Court ruled that formerly segregated school districts
may be released from court-ordered busing once they have taken all "practicable"
steps to eliminate the legacy of segregation. According to the Court, school
districts are not responsible for remedying local segregated housing patterns,
as long as these patterns are the result of private choices and are not
themselves "vestiges" of the era of official school segregation (Greenhouse,
Nevertheless, many urban schools remain involved in some form of court or
government intervention to desegregate. Nearly all the plans, whether voluntary
or court-ordered, are system-wide and include all grade levels. Plans in five
cities involve the surrounding suburbs (Casserly, 1992).
Yet, the picture provided by the rare researcher studying desegregation
across the nation has not been optimistic. Two of the few recent desegregation
studies report the increased isolation of black students in Southern districts
(Orfield, Monfort, & Aaron, 1989), and national social trends that "seem to
augur sharp increases in resegregation" (Taeuber, Smock, & Taeuber, 1990, p.
28). Moreover, segregation appears to be worse for Hispanic than for African
American students. In 1986, more than 70 percent of Hispanic students, compared
with 64 percent of blacks, were enrolled in schools that were more than 50
percent minority; almost a third of Hispanic students were in schools more than
90 percent minority (Haycock & Duany, 1991).
VOLUNTARY DESEGREGATION THROUGH SCHOOL CHOICE
country, the tendency these days is to use magnet schools and various forms of "controlled choice" to create voluntary desegregation. However, research
suggests that there are severe limits to what school choice can accomplish. The
strongest evidence against choice comes from a recent analysis of 20 school
districts, which suggests that the level of segregation is most likely to be
reduced, and a racial balance to be maintained, when desegregation is mandatory
Magnet schools provided the original strategy for desegregation through
choice. However, the question of whether the magnet strategy is viable is
answered differently by different researchers. In a study of a number of
districts, Rossell (1990) argues that magnets are successful desegregation tools
because they offer the "carrot" of excellence and special programming. A study
by Metz (1986) of three magnet schools in a large city suggests more ambiguous
lessons. According to Metz, by making magnets implicitly superior to regular
schools, the school system created a situation where no one had to go to an
inferior school (defined by race and class) just to bring about desegregation.
However, contrary to publicity, it was not the magnets themselves that
desegregated the city's schools, but the closing of central city schools and the
busing of black children to white schools. In fact, the role the magnet schools
played was to cause "a small amount of reciprocal movement of whites" and, as
important, to "distract" the city from the fact that desegregation was occurring
A recent study of a court-ordered voluntary transfer plan in St. Louis
(Wells, 1991) makes vivid the limits of "choice" in creating desegregated
schooling for black students. This research demonstrates that, given the choice
to attend either segregated urban or predominantly white suburban schools,
African American urban parents do not necessarily choose a predominantly white
school for their children; nor do they make "rational" choices based on what
might be the best education for their children, even when transportation to
suburban schools is free. Indeed, while some parents and students may actively
choose an all-black (and under-resourced) school, a sense of powerlessness and
alienation may cause many to "choose not to choose," by default keeping their
children in the neighborhood school, or even enrolling them in schools they
believe to be inferior. Thus, only a small percentage of black families who
could be involved in voluntary desegregation choose to be.
The fact that parents do not necessarily choose schools on the basis of
educational quality is supported by Metz (1986). Although one magnet in Metz's
study had little distinctive about it, it developed the longest waiting list,
simply because "many middle-class and ambitious working-class parents sought a
school where their children would be with children of the highest social class
and achievement level possible" (p.208). In fact, as Metz argues, racial
desegregation, "or at least racial integration--a social environment in which
the races mix easily as social equals--seems to be the most easily compromised
aim" among magnet schools (p. 130).
DESEGREGATION AND BILINGUAL EDUCATION
Recently, the great
influx of immigrant children has brought into new focus the potential conflict
between school desegregation and bilingual education, as children whose native
language is not English have had to be placed either in language segregated
environments or integrated into mainstream classes without the benefits of
special language instruction. While some districts have sacrificed desegregation
goals to teach language minority children, others have subordinated native
language instruction to desegregation.
In fact, the conflict between desegregation and bilingual education goals is
one more of theory than of practice. Hispanic students are enrolled in
increasingly segregated schools, at the same time as the majority of language
minority students receive no special education. In 1986, more than 70 percent of
all Hispanic students attended schools that were 50 percent minority, and almost
a third of all Hispanic students were in schools that were 90 percent minority
(Haycock & Duany, 1991). Yet, in the mid 1980s some 68 percent of eighth
grade and 82 percent of eleventh grade language minority students received
neither bilingual nor English as a Second Language instruction (Valdivieso,
DESEGREGATION AND ACHIEVEMENT
As the 1954 suit, BROWN v.
TOPEKA BOARD OF EDUCATION, claimed, it appears that racial balance does affect
achievement. Segregated schools are more likely than predominantly white schools
to be financially under-resourced and educationally inferior, as measured by
pupil/teacher ratios, advanced curricula, computers, laboratory equipment, etc.
(Taylor & Piche, 1990). That is, school-based achievement differences
reflect not only the race (and poverty) of their students, but "fundamental
inequities between districts serving predominantly poor and minority students
and districts serving more affluent and more largely majority students" (Orland,
An analysis of the performance of high school students in Dade County shows
how both higher expectations and better resources may turn into school-level
differences. Dade County students in predominantly white schools have the
highest average test scores, and those in predominantly black schools score the
lowest (Portes & Gran, 1991). Moreover, both Hispanics and Asians perform
more poorly in predominantly black schools than they do in predominantly white
ones--that is, even non-black students are affected by the school differences.
The point is, as Portes and Gran argue, the differences in test scores in the
various Dade Country schools are not caused only by differences in student
ethnicity, because, even after controlling for individual ethnicity and other
factors, the differences persist at the school level. Something systemic about a
school serving predominantly black, or predominantly white, students--covering
both resources and expectations--contributes to the success or failure of all
students who attend. These inequities are one reason why resource and school
effectiveness issues have joined racial balance as aspects of desegregation
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